Publicly-funded That’s Solent TV moves ‘local’ broadcasting to Salisbury

That's Solent TV studio at Highbury College. Photo credit Bill Butcher.

Local station That’s Solent TV has earned up to £300,000 of funding from BBC licence fee payers, but now wants to be based outside of the Solent area. A source close to That’s TV employees said staff read about nationwide studio closures on news sites rather than being told by management. Former That’s Solent journalist Dale McEwan continues his series of investigations into the channel.

Broadcast regulator Ofcom has given permission for publicly-funded local TV station That’s Solent to be based in Salisbury, despite previous S&C investigations suggesting that the channel was already broadcasting from Salisbury months before consent was given for the move.

Ofcom’s decision will see parent company That’s Media close 13 studios in its network of 20 local TV stations across the UK. The controversial broadcaster will operate from seven regional studios, as predicted in a S&C report.

That’s Solent will fall within a ‘South of England’ hub and will be broadcast from That’s Salisbury’s studio in Salisbury along with the stations from Basingstoke, Guildford, Oxford and Reading. All news shows from these stations will be hosted by presenters in Salisbury.

But our previous investigation revealed signs that That’s Solent had already departed from the Solent area and started broadcasting from Salisbury as early as February this year.

That’s Solent was based in Highbury College in Portsmouth from its launch in 2014 until November 2018. Ofcom refused to say where That’s Solent was based from November onwards. Ofcom used freedom of information laws to withhold this information, despite That’s Solent being funded by the public.

What is local TV?

Jeremy Hunt introduced the local TV scheme when he was culture secretary. Funding of up to £300,000 from BBC licence fee payers is given to each station over a three-year contract. Stations have to send the BBC a certain number of stories each year to hit quotas for funding. It is understood that That’s Solent’s funding ended in 2017.

Previous S&C reports revealed how the company has exploited its journalists. Under director Dan Cass, That’s TV has overworked employees, paid them the National Minimum Wage, kept them on zero-hour contracts and not covered their substantial petrol expenses – all while BBC funding has poured in. That’s TV has continued to drive down costs by cutting the number of local programming hours across its stations.

The broadcaster holds most of the local TV licences across England, Wales and Scotland.

Local commitments upheld?

Ofcom previously told S&C that the main production base and/or studio of each local station must be based in the licensed area unless permission is given. In this case, That’s Solent must be in the Solent area.

A former That’s Solent journalist, who wished to remain anonymous, described Ofcom’s U-turn as a ‘joke’.

They told S&C, ‘So Ofcom thinks it’s OK to let local television operate from seven regional hubs across the UK? ITV did the same thing several years ago when regions were allowed to merge. Just like Independent Local Radio, the ‘local’ has become a joke. And this will allow greater investment to improve programming? Yeah, right…’

S&C has read Ofcom’s letter to Cass, which states that journalists will still be based in the licensed area but without physical premises. Tom Connolly, Ofcom’s principal for broadcast licensing, explains That’s TV’s ‘commitment for journalists and reporters to continue to collect, develop and record interviews on location within the licensed area…’

Ofcom believes this means that the ‘local presence’ of stations like That’s Solent will be ‘maintained’.

The regulator also states, ‘That’s TV has confirmed that viewers of [That’s Solent] will not notice any difference in the content broadcast, with news items and interviews still recorded within the licensed area…’

But S&C previously watched bulletins with many stories from outside of the Solent area. For example, the top story in one news bulletin was about Salisbury, with the show also featuring stories from Basingstoke, Newbury and even Birmingham.

A former employee of another That’s TV station said Ofcom’s claim that viewers will not notice any difference in news content ‘completely misses the point’.

They said, ‘Out of a total of usually six to ten stories (completely depending on video times), three or four are filmed within the station location and the remaining are filmed out with, usually a completely different city.

‘The news programmes [at this station] have always contained news stories from out with the licensed area. This is the same for all over the UK.’

Staff under pressure

Cass did not tell employees about the studio closures, according to a source who is close to staff at stations within the network.

They said, ‘They’ve had to read it in the news. It has people worrying about their jobs.’

It is understood that journalists at That’s Solent will have to send stories from cafes or their homes to the regional studio in Salisbury because there will be no office in the Solent area. A former employee of That’s TV Scotland said this started happening at the five Scottish stations because of a lack of offices.

Commenting about what That’s Solent journalists can now expect, they said, ‘Losing the small number of ‘offices’ that That’s TV has is going to make it so much harder for reporters when they already have an impossible job.

‘They’ll be forced to find cafes and any WiFi source they can possibly find, which we have done in the past but never worked.

‘For us to upload stories, cafe WiFi is never strong enough and it’ll really affect reporters’ work days because Dan Cass is taking the few stable things they have away from them.’

Through speaking with sources from other stations, it is understood that Solent staff will likely be pushed to complete video reports in plenty of time. This is so that news bulletins for six stations can be pre-recorded in the Salisbury studio.

A former employee said staff are always under pressure to film enough stories to hit quotas for BBC funding for the company. They explained that Cass asked them to get more stories on a day when they already had a ‘huge workload’.

‘At that time, we were still recording all of our shows in a football studio that was being lent to us, and it was in a business park in the middle of nowhere.

‘I told Dan this and he told me I should walk into all the businesses nearby and get a ‘story’ from them, or try and record anything I can from them that I could use as a story.

‘When I said this wouldn’t be possible due to my already-huge workload, I was judged severely by colleagues for not ‘pulling my weight’. It was insane. [Cass] didn’t even care if it was actual news we were getting. As long as it was something on film and he wasn’t told too much about it, he didn’t care.

‘I had to start doing [job] interviews in my free time to try and get enough people to get enough stories for BBC quotas.’

Will That’s TV invest in programming?

Ofcom’s response to That’s TV implies that Cass may use money from office closures to invest in locally-produced programmes.

The letter states, ‘Your request notes that the cost and resources required to maintain separate physical premises may be better invested in the production of local content for viewers and that the proposal is designed to support the efficient operation of That’s TV’s local news services.

‘Ofcom has also, therefore, had regard to the sustainability of these services given the financial challenges that the sector faces.’

But questions remain over how much money That’s Solent will really save by moving to Salisbury. A freedom of information reply from Highbury College revealed that That’s Solent paid nothing for using studio and office space during its four years at the college.

Cass did not respond to our requests for a comment.

However, in a statement given to BBC News, he said, ‘Does it make sense to be investing resources in 20 physical premises where you’re tying up quite a lot of your reporters and journalists in administration and technical work rather than doing what we’re doing going forward, which is freeing them up to spend significant time to be journalists?

‘Experience in the industry is that the best use of journalists in terms of their skills and newsgathering ability is out on location gathering news, not stuck in a studio.

‘It’s not a secret that it’s challenging to operate a standalone local TV channel, with studios and premises and technical staff in one location.’

Cass added that That’s TV wants to ‘deliver a model which delivers great community-based news reporting in the future’, and it makes sense to make ‘efficient use of the fact we operate a group that controls 20 licences’.

Read more:

Star & Crescent: How Local is That’s Solent? Investigating Publicly-Funded Local TV

Star & Crescent: That’s Solent TV: Delivering for Portsmouth Students?

Star & Crescent: Former Employees Call for BBC Investigation of That’s Solent TV

Star & Crescent: What the BBC Licence Fee was Meant For? My Time With That’s Solent TV

Star & Crescent: Will Publicly-Funded That’s Solent TV Leave the Region for Good?

Private Eye: Listen to the Page 94 podcast, January 2019, where Adam Macqueen explores That’s TV, “the ‘local’ telly which is anything but”.